The Social Life of Cities: stories about urban innovation

Nicola Bacon and Saffron Woodcraft set out why it matters that we pay more attention to the way that individuals and communities are shaping their cities, and why this is the focus of the first publication from the Social Life of Cities collaborative, ten stories of urban innovation from cities across the world.

What is it like to live in a particular city if you are six or sixty, a long-term resident, unemployed or homeless? How can understanding community dynamics and the history of a place shed light on why one neighbourhood struggles and another thrives? What are the implications of the starkly uneven distribution of power and resources in our cities?

These are the questions that often don't make it into debates about urban policy, yet they are exactly the kinds of questions that prompt new ways of thinking about the challenges that cities face. The answers to these questions often lie in the detail of how urban residents, and communities, get by, deal with change, and take action to improve their lives and challenge what they don't like. 

To highlight the energy and creativity that drives neighbourhood life in cities, Social Life has published a collection of essays about city life. We believe that looking at a high street, a neighbourhood park, or a local café can tell us much about the health and resilience of a community. Everyday life of city streets and neighbourhoods gives us a perspective on cities, social change and the radical variety of urban life, that is dramatically different to conceptualising a city as an intelligent network, an economic system, or a conglomeration of different infrastructure. 

This is the first publication from the Social Life of Cities collaborative, a partnership between Social Life, Cisco and the Young Foundation. Our first city partners are Malmö and Chicago. Through research, practical projects, and dialogues with communities and institutions in different cities, we are looking at new, small-scale and citizen-led approaches to innovation from around the world.

Our collection of stories - first serialised on Urban Times - opens up street views on urban innovation. Douglas Cochrane looks at the experience of Nakuru in Kenya where activism has evolved out of necessity, and the young people's cooperative Hope and Vision, at first refused loans from banks and micro-finance agencies, has now been named best Youth Cooperative in Kenya by the Kenyan government. Lucia Caistor tells us about protest against the demolition of older neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires. Maryanna Abdo explores new models for educating children living in poverty in Mumbai. Marisa Novara reports on placemaking in Chicago. Bjarne Stenquist documents Malmö City's work developing new ways of thinking about regenerating Sweden's suburbs. Zoe Spiliopolou tells us about how Athens' community institutions and markets are holding communities together in a time of austerity and political crisis. So Jung Rim reports on flourishing social enterprises and cooperatives in Seoul neighbourhoods, and Martin Stewart-Weeks explores how digital technology is supporting Sydney's local social life. Tricia Hackett reports from Medellin, and Johan Olivier from Magaliesburg, South Africa.

Our authors come from a wide range of backgrounds: some are at the frontline running projects, some work in NGOs and public agencies, others are researchers investigating urban change, but what brings these essays together is a shared focus on creative responses to tackling social needs that are about understanding the challenges of real places and real lives.

For years urban policy and strategy has been dominated by thinking about the physical city: landmark architecture, transport, housing, urban development, green technology and new digital tech. While social issues like health, education, employment and public safety matter greatly to city leaders, policy and public services deal with people in the abstract rather than the particular. As a result the outcomes of their plans often diverge from reality in unpredictable and unintended ways.

We believe that cities must pay more attention to their very local social life: ordinary, small-scale and often mundane aspects of urban existence. Our stories of urban innovation have been assembled to provide inspiration and ideas about how to do this, and where to begin to look.